Recortes: The People's Bullfight

Published in HuffPost Books, August 9, 2012. 

"I went to my first bull-running when I was two or three. One day I found myself stuck with nowhere to climb onto, so I did a recorte - I trimmed the cow. And it felt so good that I stuck with it. That's when I started with bulls. I was ten." 
Recortador at a competition in Brihuega, Guadalajara, in April 2008.

It's hard to overstate the cultural importance of bulls in many parts of Spain, even today.

Everybody has at least heard of the Spanish bullfight, that pompous business of the ritualized killing of the animal by men in dazzling suits. It's a graceful, proud and fascinating spectacle, but it also comes with all the discomfort of watching an unfair fight. No matter how impressive the bull's performance, the game is forever rigged against him. Bullfighting is also an expensive and elitist affair: today's bullfighters marry into nobility, party with the Marbella jet set and are regular subjects of celebrity TV programmes. They're not "common people".

Recortadores, by contrast, couldn't be more common. The men who face bulls in the arena dressed in sportswear and sneakers and who are sometimes called bull-trimmers or bull-jumpers in English earn their living as welders, plumbers, computer engineers or petty criminals. They don't carry weapons and won't kill the bull -- in fact, if anyone gets harmed, it's them. They pray to their saints, whose laminated pictures they bring to every competition, and smoke furtively ducked behind the side fence between turns. They're in this for the kicks.

A recorte is a stylised evasive movement. Imagine a bull running towards you and, as he lowers his head to pick you up with his horns, you turn sideways and let him pass under your hollow back, remaining in that position just long enough to look dignified without being trampled by the returning bull. Or you do a quiebro, in which you face the bull directly, standing or kneeling, and do a small step sideways just as he's about to crash into you. Or you jump directly over his head, high enough for the horns not to scrape you as he throws his head up.

It's an activity that requires speed, nimbleness and above all nerves: I've yet to witness arecortes competition in which a man isn't injured. That's why you shouldn't drink or take cocaine before a competition, another recortador in Brihuega explained. It prevents the blood from clotting.

The origin of the recorte lies in the bull-runs staged at village fiestas, when cows and young bulls are chased through the streets into the arena. (The most famous are of course the bull-runs in Pamplona, on the occasion of the San Fermín festival, as featured in The Sun Also Rises)

Towns and villages used to stage their own competitions for village youth, but since about 2005 some companies have been organising national championships with a grand final at Las Ventas, Madrid's bullfighting arena. The winners are determined by jury, with prize money ranging from a couple of hundred euros for third to a couple of thousand for first place. One of the better recortadores estimated that he made about €24,000 from 80 competitions a year. He peddled stolen goods on the side.

There's little glamour in the world of the recorte. But the young men aren't in it for money or pretty women, but for the challenge, the adrenaline rush, and the comradeship. Arecortador is nothing without his friends: they tease the bull to make him run towards the man (nothing worse than a bull that doesn't run fast and straight), distract the animal after a successful trick to let him make a dignified exit, and swarm the arena in case of an accident to divert the bull and carry the injured man outside.

And they're in it for the grit. At that competition in Brihuega, the last bull, a fast and fierce animal, picked up one of the finalists, El Parri. He was caught just between the horns and thrown a few metres through the air.

When he crashed to the ground the bull was already there, stomping on the cowering man and trying to bury his horns in his flesh. It took the other recortadores only a second to surround them, and while some distracted the bull with shouts and red cloths, El Parri was carried hurriedly behind the fence.

There he could be seen checking his stomach and thighs for goring injuries and, not finding any, he stood up straight, dusted his white tracksuit bottoms and pulled his shoulders back. Then he stepped back into the arena.

He went on to win the competition.